Movies Like 1984

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn about the genre of science fiction and the sub-genre of dystopian films. Delve into the breadth and diversity of films like ''Nineteen Eighty-four'' that imagine terrible futures, the power of technology, and the fate of humanity.

Dystopian Science Fiction

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four is a dystopian novel set in a future totalitarian state where information is carefully controlled and people are under constant surveillance. In contrast to stories about utopias (perfect images of society), stories about dystopian societies might be appealing at first, but they have a dark underbelly. Unlike other stories of this type, however, there's nothing all that appealing about the story world of Nineteen Eighty-four.

In comparison to post-apocalyptic science fiction, in which society has been destroyed by some kind of devastating disaster, dystopian futures do not necessarily predict the end of society. Rather, they seek to show how society can go wrong. In Nineteen Eighty-four, for example, society is still operating as if nothing had changed since the Cold War. The government slowly tightened its grasp on civil liberties.

The novel was made into a movie in the year 1984, and that's not the only irony of the film adaptation. Some believe that a novel so technophobic should never have been made into a film. The story focuses on a man so paranoid about technology that he secrets away his low-tech pen and paper diary. Coupled with the wall-sized screens by which Big Brother watches, it must make you wonder whether or not the novel adapted into a film loses its edge when its message comes on the very channel that might also be broadcasting Big Brother.

Big Brother Graffiti
big brother

Nonetheless, Nineteen Eighty-four conveys many of the themes quintessential to the science fiction genre. Genre refers to a method of grouping used to categorize novels and movies. Think of genres as story types. In the case of Nineteen Eighty-four, it belongs in a sub-category, or sub-genre, known as dystopian science fiction. Sporting a substantial list of films goes to show that the sub-genre attracts a strong, devoted audience. In this lesson we will look at several types of film that follow this structure.

Genre Conventions

Genres are more than ways to categorize films. Genre conventions refer to styles, themes, and characters that are known to recur in a particular type of story. For example, what would a Western be without the cowboy and the shootout? Genre conventions serve two very important functions. First, they help the audience understand what to expect from the film experience. While watching a horror film, you know it will make you afraid, for example. Second, genre traditions serve as guides to filmmakers when choosing to conform or defy audience expectations. When the creepy music picks up in that horror film you were watching as the girl silently hides from her pursuer, we know to expect some kind of shock. But it's up to the filmmaker to decide whether it's the killer or the boyfriend lurking in the shadows.

Science fiction films all have a few things in common:

  • They're usually set in the future.
  • They usually employ technology and or scientific innovation.
  • They usually use a lot of special effects.
  • You can bet it will be imaginative and creatively designed.

The dystopian science fiction film is a sub-genre, consisting of a set of conventions of its own. Films of this type are usually dark, edgy, and political, and they rarely end happily. They adopt all of the conventions of the broader science fiction genre.

Portrayal of Technology

In dystopian science fiction films, technology usually either poses a problem or provides an answer. Three different trends can be discerned. First, there are films like Nineteen Eighty-Four that value the low tech. A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alphaville (1965), and The Handmaid's Tale (1990) all follow this pattern. Alternatively, there are films that demonize technology, like The Terminator (1984) and Mad Max (1974). Both post-apocalyptic films show how technology brings up the worst in people, or else will be the downfall of society. Third, there are films that at first seem to embrace technology, only then to turn around and condemn it. Oblivion (2013) and The Matrix (1999) fall into this category.

Example of a post-apocalyptic landscape

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